February Issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 10 years ago

In Bilal Tanweer’s debut novel,The Scatter Here is too Great, the city of Karachi is a full-fledged character, as vivid and alive as the motley crew of individuals that people it. Like the other complicated and nuanced characters, Tanweer lovingly portrays Karachi in all its beauty and brokenness. Whether it is the litter-strewn beach of Sea View, the inside of a small, dingy café at Cantt. Station or the chaotic streets of Empress Market pulsating with the throng of people and vehicles, Tanweer’s descriptions of the city are tinged with an affectionate familiarity, like someone talking about a close friend. This collection of loosely interconnected stories is, therefore, in large part about Karachi and the characters’ often ambivalent relationship with, what one character calls, “this ruinously mad city.”

No story about Karachi in a contemporary setting can be complete without at least touching upon the violence that regularly plagues the city. Here, too, it is a bomb blast at Cantt. Station that connects all the stories within the novel. But the stories are less about the horrific event and more about the characters, all of whom are living quiet lives and face this violence with a mixture of bewilderment and resignation. The characters are varied and distinct, each with their own set of foibles and passions. There is Comrade Sukhansaz, an old Communist poet who renounced his family for his cause and who now wanders the streets of Karachi in search of a lost past. Then there is Sadeq, caught up in a semi-legal job of snatching cars for banks from people who have defaulted on their loans, all the while struggling to fight the emptiness inside him. There is also the little boy struggling to understand the world with the help of the stories his older sister spins for him. And central to the story is the character of a writer, a man grappling with his grief for his deceased father and trying to emulate his father’s uncomplicated love and awe for his city and the world in general, as his own relationship with Karachi is uneasy.

One of the best stories is ‘Lying Low,’ about a middle-aged businessman visiting his ageing mother in their family apartment right around the time a bomb rips through the neighbourhood. There is so much going on in this one story — the man’s guilt at abandoning his mother, his complicated feelings towards his Communist father who once left the family and is now seeking reconciliation, his longing for his own estranged son — and Tanweer handles it all with brevity. Another remarkable story is ‘The Truants,’ a story of two boys who skip school to go to the beach; one of them is trying to adjust to a world without his beloved father and the other is preparing in his own way for what he already considers to be a dog-eat-dog world.

Tanweer’s characterisation of these distinct individuals is his novel’s biggest strength. All of his characters leap off the page, alive and robust. Even secondary characters, those only marginally involved in the narrative, are fascinating. As the stories progress, the connections, sometimes fleeting, between the characters come to light. This adds texture to their lives, because a character you read about in one story slides into the next, each new story offering a glimpse of another facet of his life. Another element that Tanweer excels at is making the voice of each character clearly distinctive. Usually in a book where the author is juggling multiple narrators, the different voices all sound more or less the same, but Tanweer’s characters all have their unique tone and manner of speaking. The portions narrated by the writer are more introspective and lyrical, the story narrated by the little boy is fused with a charming innocence and the voice of the cynical Sadeq is more matter-of-fact and snarky. The dialogues are another area where Pakistani authors writing in English often encounter problems. Often the dialogue reads fine in English but doesn’t ring true in any local language. This isn’t the case here. The dialogues flow smoothly and it is easy enough, while reading, to imagine those phrases in a local language.

Given the subject matter at hand — Karachi with its bomb blasts and never-ending violence — it would have been easy for Tanweer to turn this into an ‘issue book,’ using the characters to make statements about sectarianism, corruption or the other myriad problems this city faces. Luckily, he resists this temptation and lets the characters guide the narrative. This is what makes these stories so compelling and credible — these are ordinary people living ordinary lives. You might find them sitting across your seat in the bus, or living in the next-door apartment; people with their own sadnesses and joys, going about their lives despite the bloodshed around them. As one character remarks, “Living in this city, you developed a certain relationship with violence and news of violence: you expected it, dreaded it, and then when it happened, you worked hard to look away from it, because there was nothing you could do about it — not even grieve, because you knew that it would happen again and maybe in a way that was worse than before. Grieving is possible only when you know you have come to an end, when there is nothing more to follow. This city was full of bottled-up grief.”

The Scatter Here is too Great is a tender portrayal of an often harsh city. It is a remarkable debut, making Bilal Tanweer a wonderful addition to the many Pakistani authors writing in English today.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2014 issue under the name “The World Within the City.”

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.